Borderlands (2009)

In preparation for the anticipated release of Borderlands 3, me and my friend have decided to replay the series. Obviously, we decided to start with the original Borderlands. While I have played Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I have never actually played the original game. Apart from being the first game in a wildly popular franchise, Borderlands sparked an entirely new genre. I can respect Borderlands for its innovation and impact on the industry, but the game has not aged incredibly well. Borderlands was hard for me to enjoy after playing the sequels, simply because they are superior in nearly every facet.

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The genre which has become known as “looter shooters” is massively popular. Destiny, The Division, and Anthem are recent triple-A games that were spawned by the ideas presented in Borderlands. In the dystopian world of Borderlands, the core gameplay cycle is killing enemies to acquire loot and then using that loot to take on more powerful enemies. It’s a concept that obviously harkens to loot-based RPGs such as Diablo. Borderlands is a first-person-shooter in which the player progresses their character by leveling up and collecting randomized weapons which have a variety of stats and effects. Stats such as damage, fire rate, magazine size, reload rate, and accuracy are randomized based on the level and type of weapon it is. Submachine guns obviously have higher fire-rates than sniper rifles, and a level 15 gun is likely to have higher damage than a level 10. These games also have a large emphasis on multiplayer components. Working together to tackle a boss or battle through a stronghold of adversaries is a core component of looter shooters.

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The core attraction of playing a looter shooter as opposed to a traditional FPS is the fun of collecting and trying out new guns. Through enemy drops and opening chests, there is no shortage of weapons for the player to find and experiment with. Aside from just the standard stats and types of guns, Borderlands also includes things like elemental damage. Shields are weak to electricity, health is weak to fire, and corrosive damage weakens armor. Moreover, one of my favorite aspects of Borderlands is how the manufacturers that make the guns contribute to the stats of the weapons. Some manufacturers have guns with low fire rates but high damage, others sacrifice accuracy to increase the fire rate, some make guns with large magazine sizes. I found myself preferring Jakobs and Maliwan weapons, and would specifically hunt down guns of those types. The inclusion of the manufacturers certainly makes the world of Borderlands more believable and the act of looting more engaging.

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Borderlands is set on the alien planet of Pandora. This planet is a desolate wasteland inhabited by lowlife raiders as well as few varieties of alien fauna. Pandora contains these ancient alien vaults which are rumored to contain unparallel treasure and powers. As such, fortune seekers from around the galaxy travel to Pandora in droves to attempt to find and access the vault. These opportunists are known as vault-hunters, and that is who you play as. There are four classes you can choose from, each with a unique ability and skill tree to enhance as you progress through the game. As you kill enemies and loot, you gain experience points which are used to enhance your ability or acquire a special bonus. Things like increasing sniper damage, increasing your team’s accuracy, or adding elemental damage to your weapons. The class abilities are key to playing the game and they have fairly short cooldowns that let you turn the tides of battle. You can summon a bird to hunt down prey, or place a turret to hold a chokepoint, or enter a berserker state, or phase-shift in and out of dimensions to avoid damage. The abilities, skill points, and wide variability of guns truly makes Borderlands a unique experience for each player.

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While Borderlands as a series has become known for its wacky and zany style of presentation and humor, the original Borderlands is far darker and grittier than its successors. Instead of in-your-face bombastic type humor, Borderlands is much more about darker humor. I actually appreciate this because I feel like the rest of the series goes a little too overboard with its outrageous tone. Unfortunately, I found the world of Borderlands to be incredibly boring and repetitive. Essentially every single area is just a bland wasteland filled with raiders and a couple types of aliens. There are a couple more interesting areas and types of enemies, but they aren’t introduced until the very literal end of the game. The last 10% of the game includes some much-needed variety in environment and enemy types, but the first 90% is just a blur of brown and grey.

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The biggest issue that I have with Borderlands is simply that it does not hold up very well. While the graphic novel style of visuals is essentially immune to aging, the gameplay just feels sluggish and unresponsive. I played online coop with a friend, and I had significant hit registration issues. Clean hits that went right through enemies. Sometimes I would shoot an enemy, no damage would occur, then a second later the damage would show up. Moreover, the guns just lacked an “oomph”, everything felt like a pea-shooter. Maybe I’m just spoiled by future games in the series, but Borderlands was far less satisfying to play than its successors. We even had numerous technical issues while playing, the game often crashed, my menus sometimes would not open, the sound and resolution settings would reset themselves. The game even managed to crash my Steam client.

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The progression loop of Borderlands is starting a quest, going to the quest location, killing a few bandits or aliens, and then going back to the initial location to receive a reward. This is mostly fine, and is the core of the series. The big issue is that fast-travel is not unlocked until about halfway through the game. There is an absolute ton of just mindless walking or driving back and forth from quest locations. I’m a huge proponent to leaving fast-travel out of games and letting players discover and explore the world organically in many cases, but Borderlands is not one of those cases. The world and level design were so repetitive and bland that I was immensely bored walking from area to area. The story itself was okay, not nearly as entertaining or gripping as later entries to the series. For the most part, the world of Borderlands was carried by its over-the-top characters such as Tannis, Marcus, Dr. Zed, and Claptrap.

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While I can appreciate Borderlands for innovating and creating a new genre, I can’t say that I enjoyed my time with the game. Me and my friend rushed through it so we could move onto Borderlands 2 as soon as possible. Borderlands may have been the first looter shooter, but there is no reason to play it over any of its successors. The future Borderlands games are better in nearly every regard, and it is for those reasons that I just could not find the fun in Borderlands. Knowing that there are incredibly similar but far better games in the series hampered my experience with the original Borderlands.

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